IMAGINING INDIA: THE IDEA OF A RENEWED NATION by Nandan Nilekani. Penguin Press HC. $29.95. Hardcover. 528 pages.


In 2007, Ramachandra Guha wrote India After Gandhi, a history of the world’s largest democracy. In 750 pages, he summarized Indian history which, in Guha’s words, “is so rich and complex and yet so imperfectly documented and understood.” While Guha’s work gave this world the most comprehensive account of India’s social and political history ever written, it left a gap in my mind about the economic and policy context that has shaped our country in the same timeline. As an entrepreneur, this gap was cause for much trouble until it was filled quite unexpectedly and pleasantly by Nandan Nilekani’sImagining India.

It came as no surprise later that “the book really began on a wintry evening in Coonoor … in December 2006.Ramachandra Guha, Rohini(Nilekani’s wife) and I were having coffee.” Nilekani acknowledges Guha as one of his mentors on this book. In the appendix, the book publishes a timeline of key events starting with the East India Company overthrowing the Newab of Bengal in 1757 with both money and military, to the swapping of the Left with Uttar Pradesh’s Samajwadi Party by the United progressive Alliance in the wake of the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2008. Nilekani’s focus on detail and Indian history sets this book apart from any biography or autobiography written by an Indian entrepreneur or bureaucrat. It paints a big, hairy, audacious vision of tomorrow’s India.

However, Imagining India is not meant to be a history of relevant facts. It is Nilekani’s manifesto for reform in India, grounded in the history of these facts. Nilekani consistently stakes his claims about important policy matters such as shedding of our socialist hangover and populist rhetorics, reducing government control over the economy, en-cashing the “demographic dividend” by empowering the unique human capital and entrepreneurship advantage of India, and working towards a “single market” erasing the various lines of division, improving urban infrastructure without frowning upon migration from rural areas, and providing equal opportunity to Indians through a welfare system that brings energy, health, education, pension and environment preservation to the poor. Like any manifesto, it is open to debate and invites you to engage and act, in support or opposition. Nilekani’s dedication to public policy and social responsibility is rare amongst Indian businessmen of his stature, and his current position seems unimpeachable and beyond any hidden agenda to further private financial gain.

Nilekani’s vision seems well grounded in the realities of India’s past and present, while being admittedly optimistic about the challenges ahead. At several places in the book, he lays out all that is broken and broken big, yet impels hope by citing relatively small but telling successes in the right direction. It is hard not to be cynical about the magnitude of reform that Nilekani is suggesting. It is harder to not be cynical about the pace at which these reforms will induce the desired results, even if they somehow become a reality.

However, it is hardest to not be hopeful about this change, knowing that Nilekani is dedicating his life to this and leading by example. Stranger things have known to happen in Indian history, against all odds and precedence.

The author is not sitting in an armchair after making his billions, neither is he preaching a solution that he does not practice himself, nor is he standing on a pedestal assuming higher ground. Imagining India, as a manifesto for reform, has already driven results since being published in 2008. In the book, Nilekani describes a unique identity program and use of technology in governance as two key steps in implementing the reforms he recommends. In mid 2009, he was appointed Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India  (UIDAI) by the Prime Minister. In early 2010, he was appointed Chairman of Technology Advisory Group for Unique Projects (TAGUP) by the Finance Minister. Although not successes in themselves, these are significant wins given the pace at which the Indian Government moves. One only hopes that these programs deliver even 1/10th of their promise in this decade.

The one reason to read this book is to understand how Nandan Nilekani is planning to address some of the country’s largest issues with the help of UIDAI and TAGUP. The one reason to own this book to have a single point reference for the relevant economic history of India.

After seven years in  Silicon Valley, Kashyap Deorah gave in to the itch of moving back to Mumbai to start Chaupaati Bazaar, a phone commerce company for the Indian market.